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Traverses: Art from the Islamic World across Time and Place
Cutting across continents, cultures, and a millennium, this Installation Story brings together works from VMFA’s permanent collections that were created in regions where Islam is or has been the dominant religion, or by artists from these places. Some themes are recurrent—the written word, self-awareness, cultural tension—but perhaps most apparent is the great diversity of these works.
This cross section of artistic creations from Islam’s sphere of influence is meant to provoke the question whether, and in what ways, we should call it “Islamic Art.”
Writing tablets like this one are used widely throughout Islamic areas of West Africa to teach students penmanship and to aid memorization of the Qur’an. This refined example was probably made in the city of Kano, an Islamic center in northern Nigeria and a hub of Hausa culture. The tablet’s curved base allows the user to rest the board comfortably against the waist or legs while writing. Its handle, unlike many examples in plain wood, is covered in leather with tooled designs typical of Hausa and Tuareg work. The text on the board, written in Maghribi script, is the first part of the Qur’an’s 36th sura (chapter). Local tradition holds that the ink used to write Qur’anic verse on such tablets has protective power; it is sometimes rinsed off with water and consumed as a form of spiritual medicine.
The Muslim conquest of North India in the late 12th century ensured the lasting presence of a dynamic new religion in India. At the very center of Islam is the Qur’an, which presents the religion’s theological and moral bases. More than any particular content, it is the holy book’s overall potency that is evoked by this fascinating object, a talismanic, or magical, shirt inscribed with nearly the entire text of the Qur’an. Such tunics might have been worn to avert illness and to ward off enemies and evil, the sacred words functioning to protect wearers from peril.
Penned in fine black and red ink, the Qur’anic text is organized within square compartments framed by gold margins and small red and blue roundels, as well as in elongated lappets along the bottom of the tunic. Larger roundels containing the name of God (Allah) cover the shoulders. Breast medallions feature the Islamic statement of truth (“There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger”). An elongated cartouche on the back fittingly refers to God as the Protector while the collar, sleeves, sides, and front opening are surrounded by a wide band featuring a number of God’s names in gold script.
Muslims believe that the contents of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, were revealed by God—through the archangel Gabriel—to the Prophet Muhammad. Literally the word of God made visible, the text’s transcription has always been accorded great reverence and frequently benefitted from substantial patronage and artistic skill. Calligraphy’s central place in the arts of the Islamic world is, thus, entwined with its cultures’ foundational text. While the language of the Qur’an always remained Arabic, as it was revealed, the scripts in which it was written changed over time and place. Until the later tenth century, most Qur’ans were written in the angular Kufic script, with short, thick vertical strokes and long extended horizontals that lend it a measured formality. This folio’s fifteen lines of Kufic, written with a broad-nibbed reed pen, are visually punctuated with red dots, diacritical marks that add a decorative element to the composition.
Although Muslims discovered paper in the 8th century—from the Chinese, with whom they battled for control of Central Asia—their use of the novel material was at first reserved for administrative documents. Qur’ans, it seems, continued to be copied on animal-skin parchment until the late 10th century. This detached folio from a Qur’an, made perhaps a century after the shift to paper, features six lines of text on each page in so-called Eastern Kufic script. This evolution of the earlier Kufic is more compact, softening its angular geometry with curved flourishes that extend below what was previously a strict lower limit. Diacritics here appear in black and vowels in red.
The brick is a unit that is used repetitively; it is a unit of strength, power and support. It talks about land ownership and possession. It shows a constant struggle between retaining one’s identity and yet blending with the masses.
–Noor Ali Chagani
Like fellow artists trained in traditional Indian painting at Lahore’s National College of Arts, Noor Ali Chagani grapples with the medium’s relevance to contemporary life and seeks to defy its expectations. Moving into the third dimension, he translates the rigors of miniature painting into sculptural objects, notably small walls constructed of tiny handmade bricks that evoke the built landscapes of his experience. Embellished with stucco, whitewash, and graffiti, his constructions’ worn surfaces and palimpsest texts suggest the passage of time and the decay of communities. Atop barely legible layers indexing previous histories, painted writing tells of a legal claim, “For Public Information: Contested Property,” followed by contact information for a High Court lawyer. Engaging the quintessential South Asian politics of identity, belonging, and ownership, Chagani’s walls demarcate public and private spaces and serve as reminders of India’s Partition and the divisions between communities.
Ambiguity is the strongest weapon artists have at their disposal. You can play with the layers of interpretation and avoid getting into trouble.
After studying in the United States in the 1980s, Farhad Moshiri returned to his native Iran, where, like many post-revolutionary artists, he makes works that address the junctures between divergent cultures while refraining from direct political critique. S4M53 derives its title and subject from a coded numeric writing system called Abjad, used to transcribe, in condensed form, long Islamic religious texts. Here a sample of such code is greatly enlarged and repeated in several directions, creating a deliberate cultural hybrid: a merging of monumental Islamic calligraphy with Western abstraction. Moshiri finished the painting by folding and crushing the canvas to create a network of cracks, revealing multiple sublayers, including rich areas of color. The work’s weathered surface and network of crackled lines convey a sense of time’s ravages on ancient material, an indirect commentary on the tensions between tradition and modernity in contemporary Iran.
Composed around AD 1000, the Shahnama (Book of Kings) is the national epic of Iran, tracing its mythic and historical past from the creation of the world, through the Persian empires, up to its 7th-century Islamic conquest. This page comes from the most sumptuous surviving illustrated manuscript of the epic, produced in the 16th century under the patronage of the Safavid kings Shah Ismail and Shah Tahmasp. In commissioning it they were, in part, associating their own royal authority with that of the ancient Persian kings. Originally comprising more than 750 pages, a third of them illustrated, the grand manuscript was given to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1568. It is now commonly called the “Houghton Shahnama” after Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., who acquired it in 1959 and split it up in the 1970s. This painting depicts the combat between the Iranian hero Giv and Kamus of Kashan. It shows the moment when, surrounded by their opposing armies, Giv’s lance was “cleaved obliquely like a pen.”
India’s Mughal emperors were passionately interested in history. This page, illustrated on both sides, is from the Tarikh-i-Alfi (History of a Thousand), commissioned by Emperor Akbar to chronicle the first thousand years of Islamic world history. The imperial manuscript, illustrated by Akbar’s painting atelier, was completed two years after celebrations of the Muslim millennium in 1591–92. This page refers to events that occurred in 838–40, during the reign of the Abassid Caliph al-Mu‛tasim in Baghdad. Its images depict portions of the accompanying text that mention the punishment of conspirators who plotted to overthrow the caliph. Within a palace courtyard, al-Mu‛tasim is seated on a throne at the far right, attended by servants. He addresses a bearded man before him who, in turn, gestures to a bound prisoner, most probably the captured rebel Mazyar. Armed men and retainers stand to the left and in the foreground, where they wait with two riderless horses.
This page comes from another lavishly illustrated dynastic history commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar: the Chinghiz-nama (History of Genghis), completed in 1596. Taken from the early 14th-century Persian Jami al-Tawarikh (Universal History), its text traces the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols. As their dynastic name denotes, the Mughals traced their lineage to the Genghis. Thus, much like the Safavids had with their lavish Shahnama commission, Akbar was asserting his political authority by underscoring his connections with world history’s most renowned conqueror. This page depicts Genghis’s grandson Hulagu Khan directing the seizure of the Persian fort of Alamut following its surrender on December 15, 1256. He stands on the ramparts above the main gate of the fortress while his workmen tear down the walls around him and his soldiers stream into the fort. The detailed rendering of these troops, their trappings, and the trees that punctuate the landscape reveals the Mughal interest in naturalism and precise visual observation.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, small pieces of furniture and decorative objects richly ornamented with mother-of-pearl were produced in the Gujarati port cities of Ahmedabad, Cambay, and Surat. These objects were manufactured both for the Indian market and for export to West Asia and Europe. This writing chest or qalamdan, a spectacular example of the craft, was made to store pens, knives, inks, and other scribal implements. The mother-of-pearl patterns covering the chest resemble motifs found on certain types of Mughal carpets and on an early 17th-century wooden tomb canopy in Delhi. Verses written in Ottoman Turkish within border cartouches on the lid refer to the virtues and beauty of the desk, often alluding to mystical Sufi ideas. Though it was probably made for the Turkish market, this chest is typical of the sumptuous mother-of-pearl objects owned by the Mughals.
The Mughals were only the last of India’s important Islamic dynasties. When they came to the subcontinent in the 16th century, India’s central zone, called the Deccan, had been ruled for nearly two centuries by Shiite sultanates. This striking brass standard, mounted on top of a long pole hung with cloth, would have been used by Deccani Shiites in processions and other religious observances during the Muslim month of Muharram. Such ‘alams are thought to be conventionalized versions of the battle standards borne by the army of Husain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during his defeat at the battle of Karbala. Dragonlike makaras encircle this example’s drop-shaped medallion, in which an openwork Arabic inscription invokes Allah, Muhammad, and Ali. All but one of the ‘alam’s crowning projections are modern replacements; the original upper spikes were probably straighter.
Connoisseurs of the arts, the Safavid Shahs, like their Mughal counterparts, assembled sumptuous albums (muraqqa) filled with prized paintings, works of calligraphy, and even prints taken from European books. Typical of such album pages, this example features a collection of calligraphies from multiple sources, assembled into a patterned composition. Penned in fine Nasta‛liq script, the individual calligraphic clippings are interspersed with small triangular cartouches richly embellished with floral and arabesque decoration. The asymmetrical borders, ornamented with gold flowers, indicate that this panel was featured on a left-hand page facing another, similarly sized composition on the right: maybe another assemblage of calligraphy, but perhaps a painting.
Associated with the teachings of Allah as recorded in the Qur’an, calligraphy has always been one of the Islamic world’s most refined and esteemed art forms. Once part of a Mughal album, this page features elegantly penned calligraphy in Nasta‛liq script surrounded by cloudlike borders, delicately painted arabesques, and floating cartouches. Its text invokes both Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. Its refined calligraphy is the work of Abdul-Rahim al-Harawi, a renowned Mughal calligrapher who left his native Persia at an early age and was employed by emperors Akbar and Jahangir. His signature appears at the lower left, together with the honorific title bestowed on him by Jahangir: ʽAnbarin Qalam (one whose pen is like ambergris). The inscription in the small rectangle along the left border states that the calligraphy was made in Lahore in A.H. 1015, equivalent to AD 1606/07.
In my art I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.
Lalla Essaydi’s photography explores the complexity of female identity in the Islamic world, especially the issue of veiling and revealing that surrounds Arab women. The women in her series Les Femmes du Maroc are enveloped in Islamic calligraphy, a traditionally male art, written—on their skin, robes, and surrounding interiors—in the traditionally female art form of henna. The text at once entraps her subjects and signals their agency. Essaydi’s art is also a response to Western Orientalism and here, particularly, to one of its defining images, Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. Through her re-authorship, Essaydi draws attention both to the Western male sexual fantasies informing Orientalism and to the ways in which Arabs’ views of themselves have been distorted by its voyeuristic lens.
[At first] I found it conceptually liberating and emotionally rewarding to paint my immediate surroundings on a small scale. Then I got involved in it formally and conceptually, and I found in it the way to express my voice and vision.
Nilima Sheikh studied both history and art. Trained in Western-style oil painting, she eventually expanded the progressive modernist style of her early career when she turned her attention to traditional Indian miniature painting. The resulting works, featuring saturated washes of earth-tone pigments and delicate drawing, often combine observations of contemporary social and political realities with poetic, even mystical imagery. The Last Saffron series, inspired by the work of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, contemplates the modern plight of his contested, Muslim-majority homeland. Rich reds and oranges float in Rothko-like clouds of color; indistinct shapes hint at Kashmir’s craggy mountains and fertile valleys. Amid this vastness appears a single tiny figure: an old bearded man who, crouching at the edge of a pool or river, leans on a stick.
Living in India means living simultaneously in several times and cultures. . . The past exists as a living entity alongside the present, each illuminating and sustaining the other.
A leader of the Baroda School, named for that city’s famed art institution, Gulammohammed Sheikh influenced a generation of the subcontinent’s artists, many of whom sought alternatives to Western modernism’s hold over 20th-century Indian art. His own work marks a revival of India’s narrative tradition, often pressed into the service of telling contemporary political stories. Raised Muslim in predominantly Hindu India, Sheikh has condemned all forms of religious extremism. This painting responds, in part, to 2002 sectarian atrocities in his home state of Gujarat. Its title references the tenth or future incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, the restorer of order and justice to a chaotic world. Its composition, based on an 18th-century Indian painting, is dotted with details. A tiny figure of Gandhi approaches Kalki’s throne; visual quotations from Picasso’s Guernica fill the background; a yogi’s erect phallus is transformed into a missile; and circling fighter jets suggest Indian-Pakistani military conflict.
My whole purpose of taking on miniature painting was to break the tradition, to experiment with it, to find new ways of making meaning, to question the relevance of it.
Shahzia Sikander trained at Lahore’s National College of Art when it was the only school on the subcontinent still teaching Indian miniature painting as a full subject. While artists like Gulammohammed Sheikh borrowed certain narrative structures and formal elements from this genre, Sikander belongs to the first generation who returned entirely to its format and techniques—making her own paints, paper, and brushes—only to transform them in dialogue with international art. Here the traditional album-page format becomes her ground for personal expression. Combining realism, abstract pattern, and loose organic forms, the painting includes a fully modeled self-portrait of the artist at the lower left, with something like horns emerging from her head. A contorted figure crouches to her right; another abstracted squatting figure at the upper left merges human, bird, and plant forms; still other shapes vaguely resemble internal organs. This collection of bizarre oddities appears to float within cool-colored, bubble-filled margins.
I’m not trying to make “war paintings,” but paintings about war. I’m more interested in depicting the effects of war on people who live under these circumstances.
Ahmed Alsoudani fled Iraq as a teenager in the late 1990s and made his way to the United States, where he eventually studied painting as a graduate student at Yale University. His turbulent images reflect the violence and devastation he experienced firsthand during Saddam Hussein’s regime and the First Gulf War, and then witnessed from afar during the Second Gulf War. At once vivid and dreamlike, his disfigured bodies and landscapes also address universal experiences of conflict and suffering. Here a pile of surreal elements suggests a figure lying in a dentist-chair-as-death-bed, perched atop landscape features and a second figure whose soul seems to be departing. Alsoudani’s mixture of drawing and painting reveals the layered process of the work’s creation and adds to the image’s rawness.